National Merit Scholarship Semifinalists: Not Even One Student from Mason District Schools

In a recent newsletter, Mason District School Board Member Ricardy Anderson commented on the news of 214 high school students in Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) being recognized as semifinalists for the National Merit Scholarship. Dr. Anderson wrote, "...I am concerned that none are from the comprehensive high schools in the Mason district. It’s imperative that staff identify the barriers that hinder performance and create a plan to promote more equitable representation from Falls Church, Justice and Annandale High Schools." Before questions regarding equity can be raised, it is useful to look at what is required to be recognized as a semifinalist in the National Merit Scholarship. The requirement is straightforward, to score in the top one percent on a test called PSAT. PSAT is a standardized test on reading, writing and language, and math. To become a semifinalist, one therefore has to be good at taking standardized tests. It is not a test for aptitude, intelligence or the depth and breadth of what one learns in high school. It is simply a test on how well you do on a standardized test. It is unfortunate that so much merit or recognition has been tied to doing well in such a poor assessment tool. 

Above copied from The Olive Book Blog


I served as a member of Chemistry Committee for the Educational Testing Service for several years, and as a test author, I know what function a standardized test may have. It is not finding the excellent and most promising students. Standardized tests intrinsically cannot delve deeply into materials students should have learned in schools. The questions normally found in these standardized tests are written for the specific purpose of finding deficiencies not excellence. Therefore, a low score in a standardized test may be telling us something that is useful, but a high score is completely meaningless.

Most standardized tests are multiple choice, which means the answer is always there with the question, and one can do well even without the knowledge of the correct answer if one is trained to narrow down the choices. For this reason, standardized tests like PSAT also come with test preparation programs. Of the 214 students from FCPS who qualified to be semifinalists, more than half are from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. This should not be surprising since these students have been taking test preparation programs before they even started high school. 

There is indeed a question of inequity. The inequity lies in using a poor assessment tool for the initial identification of meritorious students. In a sense, this is similar to the problem gifted programs often face. We are administering poor assessment tools and drawing the wrong conclusions from the scores. 

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